Study Guide

Italia Mia Form and Meter

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Form and Meter

Form: Petrarchan Canzone

You might have guessed by the name of this form that we're witnessing the very beginning of this special type of poetry in "Italia mia" and the other canzoni in this collection. Petrarch is not really inventing anything new when he uses this form. He gets the idea from the Portuguese canso and the Provençal troubadours singing their chansons. Still, Petrarch modifies the forms to suit his needs and winds up creating his own brand of verse.

Canzone 128 has eight stanzas in total; seven of them have 16 lines each. The final stanza is a totally different animal altogether because it is a congedo (farewell) or envoi. This shorter stanza (10 lines) has an independent rhyme scheme and acts as a direct address to the poem itself ("go, little poem, work your magic"—that's our paraphrase).

If you want to impress your friends and professors, here are some interesting specs on the stanzas of Petrarch's canzoni. Each stanza is divided into two parts: the fronte (head) and the sirma (tail). Each fronte consists of two sections, or strophes (for example, lines 1-3 and lines 4-6); the sirma is left whole to do its own thing. Petrarch uses a "connector" or chiave (key) to introduce the sirma.

We know that all sounds crazy, but it's really quite easy and useful once you see it in action. We'll "diagram" stanza 1 so you can see it in action:

(Fronte, strophe 1)
O, my own Italy, though words be useless
to heal the mortal wounds
I see covering all your lovely body,

(Fronte, strophe 2)
I wish at least for my sighs to be one
with Tiber's hopes and Arno's
as well as Po's, where I sit sad and grieving.

Ruler of Heaven, I beg now (this line is the chiave)
that mercy which once brought you down to earth
turn you again to your dear, holy land

Petrarch is super-regular with his rhyme schemes, which you can really only see, or hear, in the Italian. In Canzone 128, each stanza runs like so: ABCBAC (fronte) CDEDDFGFG (sirma). (Each letter stands for that line's end rhyme.) That ending (FGFG) is unusual for Petrarch, who normally likes to end his canzoni with a rhyming couplet.

Now, let's talk a bit about the meter to see how Petrarch uses the technical stuff of poetry to make these divisions even more meaningful:

Meter: Hendecasyllables and Settenari

Petrarch loved the poets of classical antiquity, so he lifted his metrical patterns from Latin poetry (he couldn't read Greek). There are 29 canzoni in Il Canzoniere, all of which are made up of hendecasyllables (eleven syllables, give or take) and settenari (a seven-syllable line).

While each canzoni has its own special combo of these long and short lines, "Italia mia" has 8 hendecasyllables per stanza—give or take. The rest of the lines are settenari. To illustrate this (and the rhyme scheme), we've got to show you the verse in Italian. We're going to capitalize the rhyme scheme letters of the longer, hendecasyllabic lines so that you can see them. This is from stanza 1, and it includes the fronte and the first line, or chiave, of the sirma.

Italia mia, benché 'l parlar sia indarno A
a le piaghe mortali
che nel bel corpo tuo sí spesse veggio,
piacemi almen che ' miei sospir' sian quali
spera 'l Tevero et l'Arno,
e 'l Po, dove doglioso et grave or seggio.
Rettor del cielo, io cheggio

If you can speak or read Italian, you might notice that not one of those long lines is exactly eleven syllables—and only one of the short lines is exactly seven. Don't worry about it (Petrarch didn't)—there's a little play in those metrical schemes so that lines can vary in their syllable counts.

The variation in these line lengths helps us hear the musicality of the poem (take a listen to the fantastic Moro Silo reading it in Italian). It's a little shocking for us to think of these poems as songs that might be sung, but hey, they're lyric. It's no accident that we have the same word to describe the poetic form and the words to a popular song.

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